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Innovation is one of the most over-used buzzwords of today. I wrote about this previously in 2013! (Read Introduction to Disruptive Innovation here.) Yet, innovation – as a word – continues to be bandied about as a solution to all problems but also as a mysterious, perhaps magical, process. In this post, I hope to break down the word “innovation” to a set of practical and actionable steps that help businesses accomplish growth without all the hype.
New Way of Doing Something
Innovation encompasses a new way of successfully doing something. Note the specific use of the word “success”. If we try a new way to do something and it fails, we are learning but we have not innovated. Failing is part of the innovation process, yet it is not the end goal of innovation.
Process innovation often involves new ways of doing something. In manufacturing, we might be able to skip a step by combining forming and assembly or by using pre-printed packaging. These actions are usually considered “cost-saving”, but when we involve a new way of executing the action, it is clearly defined as a process innovation.
We also see product innovations and perhaps these are the more common goal of corporate innovation programs. New product development (NPD) is a subset of innovation in which we design and develop new product innovations. Again, the new product is helping consumers and end-users “do something in a new way,” but is focused on tangible features and product attributes.
In recent times, product innovations have begun to incorporate the changes and additions in software code. Almost all tangible products also include software in some capacity. Coding introduces changes in how a product (hardware or software) functions, and thus, can be innovative. However, we must be very careful to not confuse bug fixes as “innovative”. End-users don’t want mistakes in the product in the first place, so a bug fix is not adding value.
Social and Political Innovations
Some innovations cause us to do something in a new way because society expects it or because government regulations restrict the old way of doing something. As an example, the US Government restricted the sale of incandescent light bulbs a few years ago. Consumers were certainly not clamoring for a new way to light their homes, especially since incandescent light bulbs are cheaper than alternatives. Yet a change in government policy forced to change in behavior; this defines a “political innovation”. Such innovations may not add value to either the consumer or producer but are necessary for the business to sustain itself.
Adoption of New Technology
Many process and product innovations result from the adoption of new technology. Advances in technology allow producers to manufacture goods in more cost-effective ways and to add features to products. Technology allows processes to become more efficient, so that manufacturers can make products with fewer quality defects and at increased rates. Technology has served to stimulate innovation significantly.
For instance, computer-controlled manufacturing processes allow assembly lines to move at a quicker pace. Technology, such as lasers and cameras, can evaluate quality of products during manufacturing without the cost of destructive testing. Increased resource utilization by managing the supply chain and distribution with technical innovations also result in cost-savings shared between consumers and manufacturers.
Application of New Knowledge
Finally, innovation involves the application of knowledge to new situations as well as the growth of knowledge. When we apply a solution from one domain to another, by transferring knowledge, the result is innovation.
One of my favorite examples of innovation from new knowledge is Velcro. Legend has it that the inventor studied lizards and other critters that creep and crawl in vertical surfaces. Transferring knowledge of how their little feet are able to “stick” to these surfaces allowed him to conceive a new way to attach two items together. What knowledge are you holding that contained a product or process?
Innovation is a new way of doing something by application of technology or knowledge to improve a process or product in such a way that it adds value for both the end-user and the producer. Innovation is a new way of doing something but that “something” doesn’t have to be radical or unique. Transferring our knowledge and experience between and among industries often leads to a new way of doing something.
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